The mystery of the Italian Swedish woman in Portugal

Who is the Italian Swedish woman and what is she doing in Portugal?

I’ve been reading a couple mysteries in the BarLume series by Marco Malvadi. The first few books in the series have titles referring to aspects of card games, and the title of the very first one is the name of a card game. The English title is “Game for five” which is rather vague, but the original Italian title is that of a specific game: “La briscola in cinque” (=briscola for 5).

I’ve always liked card games, which was the appeal of the book title in the first place. It turns out that briscola for 5 (or as Wikpedia calls it “briscola chiamata” = “called” briscola) is an interesting game in one particular aspect. It is a partnership game, 2 against 3, but only one player knows who the partners are until a key card is played. You can read the details (in English) at that Wikipedia link.

Another aspect of briscola in general is that that unlike most games, “signals” are allowed between partners to indicate what cards they have. These signals include winks, grimaces, shrugs, etc. Again you can read the details at that link. While we never had a chance to play briscola while we lived in Italy, we did play it once (for 4 people, not 5) long before we moved there. Two very patient friends humored us by giving it a try. One friend was the expert — an Italian who grew up playing it, the other card playing friend. It was hilarious, and all the more so because we were playing with an Italian deck of cards which has different suits than the familiar hearts, spades, diamonds, clubs, which 3 out of 4 of us had no experience with. Thanks M and D for a fun evening all those years ago!

In the novel, the signals go beyond non-verbal ones: the players “table talk” and lie through their teeth to try to get a clue as to who the partners are. I can’t say I really understand why, but it did remind me of a card game I learned in Mali, belote. Belote has been considered the national game of France, and presumably it was introduced to Mali by French colonists. Now while I’ve never played belote in France, I think the Malians have put their own spin on it. In particular, one key aspect is that in Mali it is legitimate to try to get away with breaking the rules, like not playing a card of the same suit when you’re supposed to. It is up to the opponents to catch you, and not only catch you, but to be able to prove that you cheated by looking at the cards already played.

That proof is important, as I found out to my regret in one game as I was learning. I had enough cards to know that someone hadn’t followed suit when they could, and so I threw down my cards saying that someone had cheated. The opponents said to prove it, and while I could show that someone must not have followed suit (because I had all the rest except one), I couldn’t show who hadn’t followed suit. I was supposed to wait until the player played the card later, and then I would have the evidence. Since I couldn’t prove my claim I (and my only somewhat amused partner) lost that hand. I typically would follow the rules, and eventually people knew my reputation for that, so when I did “cheat” I often got away with it, since it was unexpected. Another trick I used was to use a “waterfall” shuffle, which people there associated with card sharks. Just a little psychological edge at a key moment in a game.

But getting back to our sheep, as they would say in Mali, briscola and belote are in the same family of card games, which also includes pinochle, which I played with my family as a teenager, and skat, Germany’s national card game. I’ve played skat in Canada (with a German immigrant) and in Italy (with a German colleague), but I don’t think I ever played it in Germany, even after living there for 3+ years.

One of the card games related to briscola et al. is “Portugal’s most famous card game”: sueca. Now it turns out that “sueca” apparently means “Swedish woman” in Portuguese. So now you see the first part of the mystery. How does a Portuguese card game get the name of “Swedish woman”? Nobody seems to know, at least not that I’ve found so far.

It also turns out that there is a variant of sueca called “Italian sueca”, so “Italian Swedish woman”. So there’s the second part of the mystery. At least here there’s a bit of clarity, since the “Italian sueca” is essentially the same as “briscola for 5.” But we’re still left with how the Italian game made it to Portugal. Maybe via sailors? Or maybe its arrival in Portugal was pre-ordained, or … “in the cards.”

Posted in Fun